Why do habits feel so hard to break?

There’s a reason habit change feels really hard and it can be explained – at least in part – by Hebb’s Law.

Hebb’s Law

The law can essentially be distilled into a single phrase:

Neurons that fire together wire together

Donald O. Hebb

Neuroscientists believe the brain holds approximately 100 billion neutron. That equates to roughly the number of stars in the milky way.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

I couldn’t find a picture to adequately represent the vastness of that number but hopefully just the suggestion of an entire galaxy of connections gives you the picture.

Your efficient brain

In order to increase processing speed and make things run more smoothly, your brain constantly scans for patterns in neuronal connections and when neurons fire together regularly enough, the connections between those neurons become thicker and more permanent.

Imagine it a bit like starting with an overgrown footpath and ending up with a 5 lane highway. The connection gets thicker and thicker the more often it is used. That way information can pass through much faster.

What’s happening when you try and break a habit?

Once neurons are wired together, they automatically fire together so your brain keeps trying to run the same pathway even when you don’t want it to.

That’s one of the reasons you keep experiencing those desires to return to old habits. The patterns related to those habits are so well established in your brain that they’re firing automatically and you’re having to manually override them each time, which takes energy and puts your brain under increased stress.

That’s why it feels rubbish.

Do I just have to live with it?

Sort of. Yes. But eventually the connections thin out again and it IS possible to wire new connections in the brain.

The important thing to understand with habit change, however, is that simply stopping a habit can leave your brain misfiring for longer. The easier way to deal with habit change is to replace the unwanted habit with a new, more productive habit.

To choose the right replacement, you have to understand what reward you get from the unwanted behaviour.

For example, if you eat when you get stressed and you associate food with relaxation, finding another behaviour that helps you relax is better than simply trying not to eat the food. If you eat because it gives you a break from your desk, replacing food with a walk might work better. So first figure out what the behaviour gives you and then decide on a good substitute.

Eventually your brain will reorganise itself to support the new pattern and you’ll find yourself craving the new behaviour rather than the old one.

How long does it take?

Depending on how entrenched the habit is, it can take years to fully break the pattern. That’s one of the reasons smokers or drinkers often have stories of quitting for a year or two and then going back.

Less addictive or embedded habits can be broken faster. But a word of warning – 21 days is unlikely to get the job done. Truly embedded habits generally take longer to break than this.

I used to find that disheartening but now I’m quite pleased I know that because in the past, if I tried to break a habit and was still struggling after more than 21 days, I assumed there was something wrong with me. Now I understand I’m simply dealing with a more entrenched habit and I’ll need more time for the connections to shrink or break.

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